Webmatters Title
Webmatters : The Battle of the Canal du Nord September 1918
Rough Map of Area

The Canal du Nord

Bourlon Wood

By September 1918 the British advance had made great gains since its launch at Amiens on 8th August. On 15th September Field Marshal Haig held a conference at Third Army’s HQ at Villers l’Hôpital near Doullens, with three of his Army Commanders: Sir Henry Horne (First Army), Hon Sir Julian Byng (Third Army) and Sir Henry Rawlinson (Fourth Army).

Haig outlined his desire to begin preparatory work for a full scale assault on the German’s Hindenburg Line running between Cambrai and St Quentin. This had been part of a strategy given to Haig by Maréchal Foch on 4th September.

What Haig now had in mind was for the Fourth Army to make the attack on the Hindenburg line supported by the Third Army. To ensure that the Third Army’s left flank was secured, the First Army would take Bourlon Wood and then hold a line along the Scarpe and Escaut (Schelde) Rivers as far north as Valenciennes.

The assault on Bourlon Wood was delegated to General Sir Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps who would have to force a passage across the Canal du Nord prior to taking the wood; which sits on the highest hill in the neighbourhood.

Maréchal Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander, ordered that a series of attacks would commence over a three day period beginning on 26th September with the Americans advancing north of Verdun into the Argonne. This would grow to a general advance along the entire length of the Western Front made by American, British and French Armies.

 

Bourlon Wood from the direction of Moeuvres

Bourlon Wood approaching from Moeuvres

 

27th September 1918

It was quite obvious to General Currie that a frontal assault on the canal would be madness but the orders coming from Headquarters were quite clear :

The Canadian Corps will force the Canal du Nord, take the Marquion Line, the village of Bourlon and Bourlon Wood. From this new position all possibilities of continuing the advance will be taken.

Currie chose to launch his assault in two phases : firstly, in front of and to the south of Sains lès Marquion, the soldiers of his 1st and 4th Divisions would cross the canal and seize Bourlon Wood — the height of which gave the Germans a major advantage in observation. Then, with the canal secured, he would widen the front with the British 11th Division on the left and the Canadian 3rd Division on the right.

Thus, from a front of only two kilometres Currie would force a breach in the German defence and open the front up to nine kilometres.

There were three objectives marked up on the maps : The Red Line marked the First Objective, the Green Line, the second and finally the Blue Line.

 

The 4th Canadian Division

Zero Hour was set for 0520 hoursand at that moment the silence was broken by the roar of the Canadian artillery.

On the extreme left the 1st Canadian Division successfully seized the canal in a dry sector and rapidly secured the village of Sains-lès-Marquion and the town of Marquion. Through this breach in the German lines more troops poured and began widening the front.

On their right the 10th Brigade of 4th Canadian Division crossed the canal and quickly seized their first objective known as the Red Line. From here, they were leapfrogged by the 11th and 12th Brigades who immediately encountered difficulties in front of Bourlon.

To the south the 52nd British Division of Third Army had not been able to advance as quickly as the Canadians and this had left the Canadian right wing hanging in the air and exposed to enfilading fire.

Fighting its way forward the 87th Battalion (11th Brigade) managed to gain its way into the southern half of Bourlon village by 0945 hours. The 54th Bn then passed through them and advanced around the northern perimeter of the wood almost reaching Fontaine Notre Dame on the far side by 1900 hours.

The plan though had been to encircle the wood and with the British held up the 102nd Battalion were forced to form a defensive flank along the Bapaume Road rather than being able to advance as had been hoped.

Bourlon village fell to the 12th Brigade who pushed on out to just beyond their final objective the Blue Line. This meant that the forward line now ran northward from the eastern side of Bourlon as far as the Cambrai Road from where it now bulged forward taking in the villages of Haynecourt and Epinoy (Taken by the 56th British Division).

That night the Germans fell back once again.

Two days later on the 29th September the Third and Fourth Armies began their assault on the Hindenburg Line between Cambrai and St Quentin. What had seemed impregnable, was proving to be : merely tough.

 

Lieutenant Graham Lyall VC

102nd Battalion Canadian Infantry

Whilst leading his platoon against Bourlon Wood he rendered invaluable support to the leading company which was held up by an enemy strong point, which Lyall captured by a flanking movement, together with thirteen prisoners, one field gun and four machine-guns. Later on, his platoon being much weakened by casualties, was held up by machine-guns at the southern end of Bourlon Wood.

Collecting those men available, Lyall led them towards another enemy strong point and springing forward alone rushed the position single-handed killing the German officer in charge and subsequently capturing forty-five prisoners and five machine-guns. Having made good his final objective with the capture of a further forty-seven prisoners, he consolidated his position and thus protected the remainder of the company.

Memorial plaque to Lt Graham Lyall VC at Bourlon

There is a memorial plaque to Graham Lyall VC outside Bourlon church.

 

Lieutenant Lewis Honey, VC, DCM, MM

78th Battalion Canadian Infantry

For most conspicuous bravery during the Bourlon Wood operations, 27th September to 2nd October, 1918.

On 27th September, when his company commander and all other officers of his company had become casualties, Lt. Honey took command and skilfully reorganised under very severe fire. He continued the advance with great dash and gained the objective. Then finding that his company was suffering casualties from enfilade machine-gun fire he located the machine-gun nest and rushed it single-handed, capturing the guns and ten prisoners.

Subsequently he repelled four enemy counter-attacks and after dark again went out alone, and having located an enemy post, led a party which captured the post and three guns.

On the 29th September he led his company against a strong enemy position with great skill and daring and continued in the succeeding days of the battle to display the same high example of valour and self-sacrifice. He died of wounds received during the last day of the attack by his battalion.

Lewis Honey was killed on the 30th September and is buried in the Quéant Communal Cemetery British Extension.